Sean Flanigan is probably one of my favorite photographers. His photos has an extremely unique feel to them, at least to me they are unique. Whenever I try to describe his photos, words fail me. I don't know if "vintage," or "retro," or what is the correct word. I've been trying to learn and replicate his colorsin Lightroom, but haven't come close to being successful. Maybe you guys will know more.

One thing that I have learned is that his white is never truly white, and his black is never truly black. Check out his black and whites and you'll see what I mean, and this treatment can be seen on all his photos, kinda like his signature. I don't think he changes his colors much, it's just the blending of colors, if that makes any sense at all. His colors just kind of blend together evenly and nicely, and then he adds something to it to make them feel vintage/retro.

Another thing I notice is that he does a lot of tilt-shifting, either by Photoshop or by actual tilt-shift lens. Just can't figure out what it is about his colors.

Would really appreciate some lessons from other master photographers. Thank you!

image 1

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image 6

  • Alien Skin plugin (fading and aging effects)
  • VSCO (Visual Supply Co.) plugin
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    What does VSCO mean? – mattdm Dec 24 '11 at 1:49
  • What does any of this mean? We seek answers that are helpful and clear but this one is, to be charitable, cryptic. – whuber Dec 30 '11 at 15:06
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    Alien Skin and VSCO are both extensions of Lightroom. VSCO provides presets that give a film look, and Alien Skin is sort of a plugin. Not sure what to call it other than plugin. Hope that helps. BTW his answer actually helps a lot. I have tried both Alien Skin and VSCO and they both help a lot. In particular I learned from VSCO that the most accurate way to get this look is to play with the Tone Curve, plus saturations and luminances. – rabbid Jan 2 '12 at 16:29
  • genc is correct - VSCO can easily do this and it is very likely that was used here. – dpollitt Jan 14 '13 at 0:39

I am not sure the effect your looking at is purely, or even primarily, color treatment. Some of the photos you have linked are black and white, some are color. Regarding the color images, they all appear to be largely, but not entirely, desaturated. They also appear to be largely white balanced, with only slight shifts towards the cooler or warmer temperatures.

Overall, across all of the images, I think the key factor is lowish contrast and clipped or nearly-clipped highlights. Larger areas of bright backgrounds are allowed to encroach upon the foreground of many of the photos. Bright background highlights, usually the sun, are often used to intentionally create soft flare and create a localized contrast reduction. I have also always liked Sean Flanigan's work (ever since I first encountered him), and his style has always kind of felt "journalistic" to me, with a touch of retro. I guess thats the name I would give his style, "retro journalistic", which is somewhat unique, and which does indeed include real tilt/shift photos taken with a TS lens.

  • Thanks for your answer. So low contrast, and low highlights. I observed those too, but I still can't reproduce this effect. My colors are still off. Do you have an example photo that mimics Sean's photos? Thanks! Btw also agree with "retro journalistic." :) – rabbid May 20 '11 at 16:37
  • @rabbid: Most of my work is nature, so its hard to compare. Remember that another key factor is a lot of desaturation. You can try desaturating the entire image, or try desaturating certain color ranges or channels by varying degrees. You might try a little duotoning to create a strong separation between key colors. Also remember, not low highlights...clipped highlights...where the histogram blows a little out in the extreme highlights range. – jrista May 20 '11 at 17:01
  • actually I'm not so sure I agree with low contrast. I just tweaked some stuff in LR and it seems like some high contrast. What do you think? – rabbid May 20 '11 at 17:09
  • aahh OK I guess I got the meaning of "clipped highlights" wrong :p very sorry about that. I'll give your tips a try and report back! Btw, what color combos do you recommend for dual toning? – rabbid May 20 '11 at 17:27
  • @rabbid: The level of contrast and tones you choose for split toning are up to you. Generally, you'll want to split on colors that are already largely present in your scene, or on your primary subjects. For example, in the last sample photograph, the two primary tones are brown and gray. As for the contrast...overall, the "scene" has high contrast, however key subjects or key areas have lower contrast (local contrast). As in the first shot, the womans face should have more detail and local contrast, yet it is flatter and lacking in local contrast. – jrista May 20 '11 at 22:29

The colours are different in each of the images you've posted, some warm, some cool, some monochrome. The consistent factor is the lighting, it's always very soft, from overcast skies (except in the final sunset shot, but you get very soft light anyway at this time of day).

Other than that the colours are desaturated, and the image contrast is low. Some of them might have been split-toned I.e. different colour balance set for the shadows and highlights. This technique is often used to give photos a retro feel.

  • Thanks for your answer. I agree with low contrast. I think also low highlights, and sometimes high recovery helps too. I still can't reproduce Sean's looks after applying these changes though. I've never been very good with split tones, never really sure what color combos I'm supposed to use. Do you happen to have any example that mimics Sean's photos? Thanks! – rabbid May 20 '11 at 16:39
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    Actually, I'm not so sure I agree with low contrast. I just played around with some photos in LR and I feel like it should be medium to high contrast. What do you think? Thanks! – rabbid May 20 '11 at 17:10
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    I agree rabbid, the contrast is fairly high - there are true blacks and whites in there. It looks to me to be kind of a pseudo-bleach bypass effect in some cases - a Multiply layer, a desat layer, and a Curves layer to restore brightness. – ElendilTheTall May 20 '11 at 17:26
  • Yikes, that sounds rather complicated. Can that be achieved in Lightroom? – rabbid May 21 '11 at 1:35
  • No idea, never used Lightroom I'm afraid. It's 2 minutes work in Photoshop - even Elements could do it actually. Duplicate the base layer, set it to Multiply, make a Hue/Saturation Layer set to 0 saturation and about 40% opacity, then bring the brightness back up with a Levels or Curves layer. – ElendilTheTall May 21 '11 at 7:58

I would categorize the sample color images as having a cross-process effect. In film, that's developing negatives with chemicals designed for a different type of film. (In other words, you're "crossing" the development processes.) Depending on the combination used, this will result in different color and tone shifts.

Various digital effects which attempt a similar look are relatively common — there's a zillion iPhone apps that purport to do it, for example, and searching for "digital cross process" will probably get you some productive results. (Or it could be a new question here....)

A similar technique is "bleach bypass", which leaves out a step in processing, resulting higher contrast, reduced saturation, and some color shifts. Being relatively young and all, I have never actually developed color film myself, and my actual exposure to these techniques is through their digital incarnation, where they're often stretched in ways which may not completely match the way they work with real chemistry. (Both because people write poor software, and because, hey, if you can do it, why not?) So, I couldn't place any bets on exactly what the emulated alternative processing technique which will get you this should properly be called, but I am pretty sure that by looking into these post-processing techniques, you'll find what you want.

  • Thanks! I'll look up cross processing and beach bypass then. – rabbid May 21 '11 at 2:06
  • Neither cross-process nor bleach would be responsible for the gray sky in Image 6 would it? The trees and buildings just blend into the sky. How is that possible? My only guess is to turn down Highlights way low, but then the subject's faces would be completely flat like a piece of paper. – rabbid May 21 '11 at 2:16

I have achieved this effect by dropping down the 'Vibrance' in Lightroom and increasing the exposure either in the camera or the software. The most common pattern I noticed was the high Saturation on any one color. So using the single color pallet you can increase the Saturation of a single color. That really brings out the key point in the image. But be careful not to over do it.

The black and white is quite straight forward. You just have to drop the "Saturation" down to zero.

  • thanks for your answer! Would you be willing to show your original picture and the results after you apply the effect as an example? If you increase the exposure how do you counter overexposure and washed out colors? Much appreciated. Thanks! – rabbid May 21 '11 at 5:43

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